Braced for a backlash: The Lib Dems face an uncertain future

Posted on June 4, 2010

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Nick Clegg has seen Liberal Democrat support nosedive since the election (Pic: PA)

Former Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate Bridget Fox sounds offended at the suggestion that the party has betrayed its supporters by joining a coalition government with the Conservatives, and angry at smaller parties for suggesting that this development could work to their advantage. She feels such parties actually owe them a debt of gratitude for putting political form on the agenda.

“Whether or not smaller political parties progress depends on reform. Rather than cast aspersions, people should thank us for raising the prospect of that.”

The defeated candidate for Islington South and Finsbury is adamant the party has done the right thing for the country.

“I’d rather have Cameron with a Clegg conscience than unbridled Cameron,” she says.

Yet there is certainly evidence that there is a genuine anger over the agreement, and the fact that the party reneged on several high profile election pledges as part of it.

With such negativity towards the party in some quarters, it is hardly surprising that smaller parties, particularly those on the left, are looking at the current situation as an opportunity to make progress. Ian Page, until last month a Socialist Party councillor in Lewisham, thinks it will primarily be idealistic, younger voters that desert the Lib Dems.

“They’re young and qui

te idealistic, the sort of people who twenty years ago would have been in the Labour Party,” he says. “But they’ve had their illusions dashed very quickly. This leaves a whole vacuum in politics that can’t be filled by the three main parties. Small parties will pick that up.”

Green Party councillor and London Assembly member Darren Johnson agrees that the Lib Dems will lose some of their traditional support, and that this might benefit his party.

“We are seeing signs that a number of people on the left of the Lib Dems are coming over to the Greens, so we may be able to pick up support now from people who have previously voted Lib Dem as a progressive left alternative to Labour,” he said.

“Clearly they’ve nailed their colours to the mast now, and I think it will play very badly in areas like inner London where they have tried to assert themselves as a progressive left of centre alternative to Labour. I think they’ve alienated a lot of potential support for the future.”

‘Fraud’

A Facebook group called ‘We don’t want the Liberal Democrats to make a deal with the Conservatives’ has attracted more than 63,000 members and still provides a vehicle for anti-Lib Dem feeling. “People feel let down and as though their votes have been auctioned off,” says Rhiannon Rose, the creator of the group. “I think the people who have turned against them are the voters who really wanted changes. If you look on my Facebook page you will see that there are a huge amount of people saying that they will never vote Liberal Democrat again.”

Victoria Jackson, a former Liberal Democrat voter, feels betrayed by the party for entering into a coalition with the Conservatives, and says she will never vote for the party again.

“Lib Dem candidate

s specifically told voters up and down the country that a vote for them was a vote against Tories,” she says, “that they would insure Tories were kept away from the driving seat and placed firmly in opposition. This is quite simply fraud.

“I don’t know if people will ever vote for Lib Dem again – but I do know that I will never even consider it, they are nothing but a pack of lying toe rags, clawing at power at any cost.”

Ed Hartley, a Liberal Democrat local party chairman in Worcester until December last year, says the party might have lost their traditional protest votes for good. “My own experience would suggest that the people who voted Lib Dem as tactical votes against the Tories are livid,” he says. “Dyed in the wool Liberals like me have left because core principles were betrayed for power.”

Sarah Birch, a Reader in Politics at the University of Essex and an expert in electoral politics, is sure that the days of the Lib Dems being a haven for protest voters are over. “At the next election they will be a party of government,” she says, “which will mean that protest voters will have to look elsewhere.”

Labour will benefit from this, according to Birch, but smaller parties, the Greens in particular, might gain support as a result: “It is possible that having the Liberal Democrats in power will make some voters turn to the Greens, as the two parties share a common electorate.”

Political reform

Political reform may make the task facing smaller parties in increasing their influence easier, but the announcement from Nick Clegg

that there will only be a referendum on an alternative vote system, and not full proportional representation as the Lib Dems had previously called for, is certainly a blow to the hopes of the Green Party and others seeking to take political influence away from the three main parties. Ian Page believes full proportional representation is vital to helping smaller parties gain representation in parliament. “It would reflect the fact that there is already a layer of people out there that are looking at parties like us to represent them,” he says. But Bridget Fox insists the Lib Dems have made the right decision.

“I think the country is up for a change,” she says. “There is a public appetite for holding politicians to account and AV certainly does that. It isn’t necessarily good news for the Liberal Democrats, but it’s good for democracy.”

Darren Johnson acknowledges that the alternative vote system is not his preference, but still supports it as a step in the right direction. The Green Party will decide at its September conference whether or not to campaign for a ‘Yes’ vote, but Johnson has already put his name to a motion that they should.

“I don’t think we should get obsessed with this referendum as the only game in town but I think it is an improvement on the current system, despite all the flaws of AV. It’s the only thing on offer, although I believe Caroline Lucas will be trying to put an amendment in Parliament for a proper PR option as well.”

He recognises that it would by no means give the kind of boost to smaller parties that proportional representation would, but feels the Greens can take advantage nevertheless.

“It wouldn’t be some panacea in the way that PR would be, because the level of support we get when it’s a PR election goes up significantly. For London Assembly we’ve traditionally got around 8.5% of the vote which is way beyond what we average in parliamentary elections. I don’t think it will lead to a massive b

reakthrough but there will be a chance in some seats to make a difference and to get some people elected.”

Sarah Birch sees little positive in the alternative vote system for smaller parties, but feels that Clegg’s reforms could benefit them in other ways. “The introduction of a directly-elected upper chamber is the one change that I see as potentially giving a boost to small parties,” she says. With such reform, however small, on the horizon, and a clear hostility towards the Liberal Democrats within their support base, there is certainly evidence that Nick Clegg and his party have reasons to be nervous about their prospects at the next election.

Professor Chris Painter, Head of Social Sciences at Birmingham City University, believes the leadership is in for a shock once it grasps the magnitude of the negative feeling towards the coalition amongst the party’s grassroots support.

“There must be a significant proportion of people who voted for the Liberal Democrats who are wondering what they have done,” he says. “They’re wondering if they’ve miscalculated. It’s also causing lots of heartache for prominent Lib Dem politicians like Charles Kennedy and Simon Hughes, who thought the realignment would be a centre-left one.”

Abstaining

Students in particular, who have in the past provided the party with a significant proportion of its support, are unhappy at Nick Clegg’s agreement that the party will abstain from voting on issues regarding tuition fees. Lord Browne’s inquiry is due to present its report in the autumn, and there is a very real prospect that it will recommend an increase in tuition fees. Having opposed tuition fees in their manifesto, the party risks offending supporters by abstaining on this issue.

Painter says this is already evident amongst students.

“The feeling is especi

ally strong at universities, with the tuition fees issue,” he says. “The Lib Dems appear to have given up the ghost on that by saying they will abstain on any vote. They have at least compromised themselves on that.”

Sarah Barker, a Chemistry masters student at York University who voted for the Liberal Democrats last month, says she is unlikely to do so again because of their backtracking on the issue of tuition fees.

“I voted for them for them because they said they would scrap fees,” she says. “That was pretty much my only reason for doing it. Now Nick Clegg is ordering them to abstain, I think I’ve wasted my vote. Abstaining is just as bad as voting for it.”

This view is shared by James Monk, who starts at University College London in September. “This election was the first one I could vote in, and I did a load of research into who to vote for. I’ve heard about the amount of debt students get into, and I liked the Lib Dem policies on reform and nuclear weapons, so I thought they’d be a good bet. It looks like it was all lies now.”

Disillusion

The other two major parties do not necessarily stand to benefit from this loss of popularity, however. Painter says this can partly be attributed to the furore over the expenses and cash for honours scandals, but there is a suggestion that it goes deeper. Abhijit Pandya, a United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) candidate at the May 6th election and a Teaching Fellow in the Department of Law at London School of Economics, believes the three major parties have become too concerned with fighting over the centre ground to really get to grips with the issues affecting ordinary people.

Could Caroline Lucas and the Greens benefit? (Pic: Green Party)

“When the big parties don’t nail their colours to the mast you have opportunity for other people to discuss these things and create new ideas. And I think that in the marketplace of ideas in politics various gaps have opened up. That’s the way votes have been lost by the big parties.

“I think the systemic problem is having career politicians. Your career becomes much more about how you get yourself in a position of influence and much less about what you do when you get into a position of influence. They’re too obsessed with getting the right kind of horse to run rather than thinking about how to train that horse or the strength of that horse.”

Chris Cassidy, a UKIP councillor in Wythenshawe and Sale, believes the convergence of the three parties on the centre ground is a bad thing for British politics and that people are starting to see through it. “You can’t put a cigarette paper between any of the major parties. People are unhappy with this coalition, with the expenses scandal. They’re sick and tired of the three main parties.

“People see no principles in politics. The Lib Dems have sold their souls to the devil. A lot of people are fed up of being taken for fools.”

If this is correct, then the heavy spending cuts that the new coalition has planned over the next parliament are unlikely to help. Chris Painter certainly thinks so: “Cuts could be so severe that it is the final straw with mainstream politics. Political meltdown-type stuff, with the disaffection of millions”.

Looking elsewhere

One party that would stand to benefit above all else from such disaffection, both with the Liberal Democrats specifically and mainstream parties in particular, is the Green Party.  “I think we’ve been the most consistently successful of the smaller political parties,” says Darren Johnson. “We’ve had success, unlike the BNP and UKIP and Respect and the Socialists, at almost every level. There’s no other small party that’s had that consistency of success and that demonstrates that it is more than a protest vote; that we are able to get people elected at different types of elections at different times. It’s not like a big UKIP vote that surges forward every five years and then just evaporates.”

Having made a breakthrough into parliament at the election last month, with party leader Caroline Lucas winning in Brighton Pavilion, the party is optimistic it can maintain momentum and improve its representation in the House of Commons.

In many ways, the Green Party has set an example to other parties on how to build an effective party machine capable to achieving success on a national level. As Cassidy notes, “The Greens have showed the way to the rest of us.” For many years seen as a one-issue party, Johnson says extensive efforts have been made to ensure that the party has policies across the board.

“The more electoral success we’ve had the more that’s helped to break the stereotype that we’re a single issue party. However, time and time again the feedback we were getting from opinion polling, focus groups, academic research and so on was that though we still were perceived as a single issue party there was a lot of potential support out there. People who liked our environmental policies wanted to know more about what we stood for. So there has been a very deliberate strategy in the past two or three years to really focus on the social and economic side of our manifesto as well as the environmental side. And do that in a very accessible way.”

The party was also careful to focus its resources, more meagre than those of the three major parties, on identified ‘winnable’ seats. That was the case in Brighton Pavilion, as well as Norwich South and Lewisham Deptford, where Johnson stood as a candidate. Chris Cassidy argues that Caroline Lucas hindered her party and the rest of its candidates by focusing so much on just a few seats. “Caroline Lucas said “To hell with the party, I want to get elected”, and she did,” he says. But Johnson believes it’s a tactic that must be employed by any party with real ambitions to make it to Westminster.

“Clearly it did work in the case of Brighton, it was absolutely the right strategy. Because for a small party if we’d have spread the resources we spent on Brighton equally around the country there would have just been a few pounds spent on each constituency. It would have meant nothing. For a small party, consolidating resources in that way makes sense. But it was so important to make that breakthrough into Parliament and no longer are we now just a second order party. I think breaking through into Parliament does make a massive difference in public perception as to whether you’re a proper, fully-formed, fully-rounded public party or not.

“It wasn’t until the mid-90s that the targeting strategy was formally adopted, and from that point on we did see an incremental increase in the number of Green councillors, so that is absolutely the right approach. You need to build up a solid local base to have the consistency over different sets of elections.”

Problems ahead

Obstacles for smaller parties clearly remain substantial. Sarah Birch remains unconvinced over whether the alternative vote system is as proportional as Nick Clegg has suggested. “Simulations based on UK data and evidence from Australia, which uses AV for elections to its lower house,” she says, “suggest that in some elections AV could lead to a less proportional overall outcome than first-past-the-post. PR would have been a bolder step.”

Funding is a problem as well. The Green Party receives most of its funds from members’ donation, which compares pitifully to the huge donations received by the likes of the Conservatives, and even to UKIP, whose leader Lord Pearson has attracted some sizeable donations. Yet even Abhijit Pandya claims to have spent less than £1000 during his election campaign and refers to a “mismatch of resources” when it comes to competing against the mainstream parties. Getting the attention of the media can also be difficult, though this is a situation that has started to change for the Green Party since Lucas’ election. Johnson warns, however, that parties should not become too obsessed by media coverage at the expense of neglecting their duties at a grassroots level.

“Media is absolutely crucial, but if it’s just a media campaign and there’s no grassroots infrastructure to back it up then it comes to nothing.”

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Posted in: Issues, Politics